Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sara Nelson touches a nerve

About fifteen months ago, the moribund US book-trade journal Publishers Weekly was given a new editor, in an attempt to breathe some life into it. Sara Nelson was appointed.

Prior to her appointment, Nelson was known as a book reviewer and book-world commentator for the New York Post and the New York Observer. And she seems to have had some success in turning PW (as she has effectively rebranded it) into something worth reading.

Each week, Nelson writes a short opinion piece which can be read online, though it isn't particularly easy to find. You go to the main PW page, click on the 'Browse Publishers Weekly' drop-down menu, and then click on 'Sara Nelson'.

There is a now a facility to comment on the editor's views -- a facility somewhat improved, I gather, through the suggestions of Lynne Scanlon -- but on many a week few readers have had much to say. This week, however, Sara Nelson has really touched a raw nerve, generating a deluge of contributions which will take you some time to wade through.

Nelson's column (no pun intended for Brits) for this week is headed 'Kaavyat Emptor?' In it, Nelson offers a few opinions about the general state of publishing today and the role of book packagers in particular.

Her chief points are that it has been recognised for decades that publishing has been 'commercialised' (presumably from some imagined virgin state in which it was pure, holy, and devoted to the search for 'great novels'). But the Kaavya episode reveals that matters have gone a stage further. Now editors 'don't have time' to edit. They are no longer concerned with finding promising writers. What they want now is exploitable, fashionable, glamorous young people (often women) who can act as the chat-show front person for a product which has actually been bolted together in smoky back rooms by old men with warts. I paraphrase somewhat, but that's the gist of it.

Now one has to remember, of course, that every day there are new people coming on to the publishing scene. Young graduates who are starting their first job. Naive young authors, still green enough to think that they can become famous writers. And so forth. And for such beginners there may be enlightenment in what Sara Nelson has to say. But to anyone who has been around for twenty years or so, and paying attention, Nelson's latest column is a statement of the blindingly obvious.

But look what happens. Read the voluminous comments. It will take you some time even to scan them. And they fall. broadly speaking, into two camps.

First, believe it or not, there are those around who still imagine -- still, after all these years -- that there was once a golden age of publishing, in which highly literate, exquisitely sensitive men and women devoted themselves to the pursuit of great art. And the grateful public bought everything that was offered to them and placed it admiringly in a prominent place in their home. The authors of such deeply impressive volumes were honoured with fame, fortune, and an unlimited supply of admirers of whichever gender took their fancy (and sometimes, extraordinarily enough, that was both of them). And, judging by the comments on Sara Nelson's latest, there are still people on the book scene who imagine that if only we do this and do that, everything can go back the way it was. The old King will be restored to his throne, and the Vulgar Revolution will be o'erthrown.

The second broad group of commenters are those who work in, or have experience of, various book-packaging companies, and choose to defend the role of such companies in the modern publishing industry.

Well, as is often the case, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

My own take on the position is as follows. And I am speaking here, for simplicity, of fiction only.

Yes, once upon a time there were lots of small publishing firms whose editors were interested only in finding good books -- a term which was defined as being the kind of book which they themselves enjoyed. Forty years ago, in the UK, it was possible to break even on a novel by selling about 2,000 copies; and you could usually shift that number to the library market. So the average book would more or less pay its way, and the occasional surprise hit would keep the firm in business. Nobody got rich, but writers could be kept going for half a dozen books or so while their promise was converted into achievement.

That business has been dead -- totally and completely six feet under -- for at least twenty years. The library market has virtually vanished, and all the small firms have been bought up and incorporated into half a dozen big (by publishing standards) firms which are themselves tiny subsidiaries of much bigger (and often foreign-owned) companies -- companies which expect their small publishing sections to make substantial profits. Not publish literature, but make profits.

And from the perspective of the current owners of publishing firms, the problem with publishing is that it is pathetically unsatisfactory as a profit-generating business. (There is lots more about this in my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile). Every serious businessman who has ever looked closely at book publishing, and particularly fiction publishing, has given a snort of derision and hastily passed on.

For those who continue to work in big-time commercial publishing, however, the demands of the job are very simple. You have to sell books.

In this world, it makes perfect sense for a publisher to use book-packaging firms. But, as with choosing your dentist, you need to choose someone who knows what they're doing. And the whole problem with the Kaavya affair is that we now know that the people involved didn't actually do it very well. Unlike many a book-packaging project, this was a high-profile one, bound to attract a lot of attention. And when you know, in advance, that you're going to be very closely looked at, you'd better make sure that your hair is washed and your shoes polished.

For the writer who takes the trouble to study the facts (and there's no excuse nowadays, because the internet is bursting with data), the position is quite unambiguous. It is futile to imagine that you are going to be able to make a career out of writing fiction which is 'personal', 'literary', 'fine art' or describable by any other term which means doing your own thing the way you want to do it. If you want to write and be published by the firms which have the power to generate any more than small change for you, you have to do things their way. And good luck to you. It probably isn't any more painful than working for an advertising agency or TV. Approached in the right way, it might even be fun.

If you want to please yourself, follow your own instincts, and write whatever inspires you, feel free. And when you've finished the book, there are lots of small presses and thousands of other ways to seek readers for it. But, if you wish to avoid being carried away by the men in white coats, do not kid yourself that possession of an MFA will somehow transport you back to 1950. Max Perkins, he dead, as I believe someone once said.

P.S. If you want to know more about small presses and how they fit in with the long-tail concept, see the article by Stacy Perman in BusinessWeek Online -- link from, as is the next one.

P.P.S. Poor old Kaavya. I can't help feeling a bit sorry for the kid, really. She's only a teenager. And now, on the general basis that it's so much easier to kick someone when they're already down, Little Brown have announced that they are never going to publish a revised version of her novel; neither are they going to do the second novel which was called for by the contract. (Remember what I've always said about these big-money contracts? If you read the small print there is never as much money there as people would have you believe.)


Anonymous said...

Change and innovation inside the publishing industry will only come from irresistible forces outside the industry.

The hierarchy is too rich, too fat, too entrenched, and too self-satisfied.

Anonymous said...

George Orwell saw 'Animal Farm' published eventually in 1945 by Secker and Warburg : Orwell was of course by this time a well-regarded novelist,although publication had been delayed both by the difficulty of finding a willing publisher and for fear of upsetting Soviet war-time allies

More to the point, and here I quote from "George Orwell, a bibliography" by Gillian Fenwick (page 96)...."It is worth noting that as Warburg himself wrote, 'Animal Farm' was published without a signed contract. Orwell received an advance of £88 (though Warburg says £100), and after publication he would get 12% on the first 5,000 copies sold, 15% on the next 10,000 and 17% thereafter..."

Different days, different ways.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to admit it, Grumps. You got it wrong on the plagiarism debacle. People are fascinated – and appalled – by the revelations coming out of Harvard Yard. It wasn't just naughty, or disagreeable – as you seemed to think. It was plain wrong and may well have legal consequences for the "author," her publishers and the packagers.

It's time theft in novels was stamped out.

– Jeremy Snippet

Anonymous said...

One sad feature of the Kaavya affair is that some listers are now putting the offensive (rather than offending) plagiarised book for sale on the likes of Amazon and Abebooks in order to make a quick profit without consideration for the misery that this young lady has brought on her family name.

lady t said...

What bothers me is this move by the publishers to throw Kaavya to the wolves-yes,she did wrong and they should cancel her contract. However,Alloy owns half of the copyright to her book and I'm not hearing anything about them getting a background check on their other titles while newspaper articles that KV wrote as an intern are getting rechecked.

Something's not right here in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for Kaavya too. If we believe her explanation - and I really do - the plagiarism happened without her being conscious of it, because she was an avid reader of Megan McCafferty's work and internalised it. I know my memory is deteriorating as I get older - I can't remember saying things, I pick up ideas, opinions, quotes and phrases from who knows where. We unconsciously copy the people we admire. She should be given the opportunity to fix her work. It is a weak, knee-jerk reaction for her publishing company to refuse to revise. Here in Australia we'd call it a cop-out.

Finn Harvor said...

One point in this post that interests me in particular is the role that libraries used to play. Obviously, if they were buying books -- for example, 2,000 -- that meant lower potential sales, since readers could take the books out on loan. But it also meant that an author, even if relatively unknown, could count on at least having a certain audience. In other words, there was less astronomical success, but also less absolute failure. Although not a golden age, it seems rather enviable now.

Anonymous said...

Nelson said it all in her opening line--no one in the publishing industry really cares if she done it or not. They've already run ahead to Edward Kennedy's "My Senator and Me," described in PW as "Enthusiastically and endearingly narrated..."

I love how even PW is now trying frantically to join the "interactive" realm. Like they read the comments, much less care.

Ollie Ollie said...

I might be more censorious myself, except I recently left a story comment on an online conference critique group I belong to. It was only after going back later and reading it, that I realised I had lifted two separate phrases - unusual ones - from the post preceding mine. Without the slightest conscious awareness of doing so.